Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"I don't do coffee and I don't lie to wives" -- a collection of our secretaries

Like all of America, I loved Mrs. Blankenship on MAD MEN. (By “all of America” I mean the million or so people who watch this best show on television.) She was Don Draper’s secretary before that word was banished for being politically incorrect along with stewardess, housewife, and two-bit whore. (I wonder: will the thoroughbred race horse have to be renamed “ExecutiveAssistantiat”?)

But Mrs. Blankenship brought to mind a number of the uh… “eccentric” secretaries my writing partner David Isaacs and I have had over the years. We loved them all. They were wonderful people and in most cases did a great job. But some were strange.

You might say, “Well why did you hire them then?” The answer is we worked at studios and had to hire from within the secretarial pool. And if the person who hired the secretaries was an uber nutcase, that’s who she selected. So everyone we interviewed had eccentricities, which by the way, is not such a bad thing.

Case in point was Emily. (Names have been changed.) Emily was in her mid 30s. One Monday morning she comes in and announces she would like to appear in Playboy. “The girls from MASH” is just the type of spread they did. I said, “Don’t you have to submit nude photos of yourself?” She said yes and produced about ten photos. “Which ones do you like?” she asked. Holy shit! After our initial shock we composed ourselves and very analytically studied the photos, finally deciding on the best two (at about 5:00).

Most secretaries will tell you what they think you’ll want to hear during initial job interviews. Not Lisa. She said, “I don’t do coffee and I don’t lie to wives”. We hired her. Neither of us are coffee drinkers.

On the other hand, at the end of one business day David and I finished polishing a pilot we were writing and wanted to get it to our director that night. Carol, our then-assistant, did the corrections and was about to send the script when I said, “Wait. I want to proof it once more before it goes out.” Exasperated, she handed it to me. I made a few more tiny changes. I returned it to her and she said she’d do it in the morning. I said, “No, we want this to go out tonight”. She rolled her eyes and then said, “Y’know, up until now I’ve been very patient with you guys.” Carol didn’t last too long.

Bonnie did a good job but we were a little uncomfortable with her extra curricular activities. She and some other secretaries on the lot had a little competition to see who could sleep with the studio president first. I think Bonnie finished third.

Jennifer, on her first day, asked if she could take a longer lunch because she had an abortion scheduled for 12:30.

People would arrive at our outer office to find our assistant, Jennifer, frequently standing on her head. She was maybe our strangest (which is saying something). The way David and I worked was to dictate scripts while our assistant took shorthand. There would be moments of silence while David and I tried to come up with a line. Jennifer would start chuckling. We’d ask what was so funny and she said, “Oh, I’m just anticipating that you guys will come up with something really funny and I’ll want to laugh”. I once said, “Oh really? Could you possibly anticipate just what the line is?”

Jennifer didn’t last very long either. One day at the commissary she was having lunch on the outdoor patio. She was the only one out there. It was a blustery windy day. Anyway, a tree branch fell and hit her in the head. I think she’s still suing the studio.

Another tree branch figured in an incident with assistant Paula. She lived alone in a Westside apartment and one morning her bird gets out of his cage and roosts on a nearby tree branch. When that happens what do you do? A lot of people might call the fire department. Not Paula. I get a call at 8 AM from the studio asking me to approve an expenditure that would be charged against our production company. $20,000. “Are you fucking kidding? $20,000? We don’t even have a show on the air. What is this for?” “A stunt man”. Paula had asked for a studio stunt man to come out, climb the tree, and get her bird down.” Needless to say I did not approve the request.

We once had a lovely spinster-type secretary named Marge. She too lived alone. She had one real love in her life, this very cool little red Porsche. One day she looks out the window and a tow truck is hooking it up. She runs down frantic only to learn that this was a stolen car that the FBI had been tracking for two years. And until she produced her proof-of-purchase from another party she was in grave danger of being charged for the theft and hauled off to prison.

Assistant Wendy wound up on one of those Judge Judy shows suing a Smurf for scaring her kid at a birthday party. The Smurf won.  Those blue guys really know how to lawyer-up. 

One of our assistants had an affair with a rock star. And another had an X-rated episode with a very well-known celebrity involving a dungeon.

But like I said, we loved them all. And one I very much miss. Sue Herring (real name), who’s no longer with us. Mrs. Blankenship will soon fade from memory but Ms. Herring I’ll never forget.


Matt said...

Did you have any male assistants?

l.a.guy said...

Great stories. I don't suppose you still have the pictures of Emily? It would really bring the story to life...

Unrelated Friday question:

Did you ever, or were you ever tempted, to try working as a stand-up comedian? Are comedy writers frustrated stand-ups, or is it the other way around? Also, have you ever worked on a show with writers who were stand-ups and if so is it good or bad?


Mac said...

I just feel for Wendy. Condemned to regret leaving the comedy transcription game, as she sits violently sticking pins into that Smurf voodoo doll.

John S said...

I remember that episode about the Smurf! It was Judge Wapner's PEOPLE'S COURT, and the Judge had a chance to show off his show biz knowledge. When your former secretary complained that the Smurf was played by a six-foot-tall black man, the judge said, "Who did you think should play the part? Somebody like Billy Barty? You know who he is, Billy Barty?"

emily said...

Remember the good old days, when names were changed to protect the innocent?

Thanks a pantload.

Peter said...

Loved Mrs. Blankenship, too! She brought some wonderful comic relief to the party. I'm mad at Mad Men for kicking her off (though I did enjoy the way the staff slipped her by clients in the meeting room - a perfect comic send off).

David Schwartz said...

I was a male assistant for a writing team in the 1980's that worked on a number of sitcoms of the day. Not Levine and Isaacs, but well known writers just the same. Hmmm... someday maybe I'll blog about the writers escapades like Ken did about his assistants... (actually, there wasn't all that much interesting stuff going on besides rewriting scripts all day long)!